The red-legged frog, the spotted owl of the environmental movement on the coast, recently lost almost 4 million acres of critical habitat. A federal judge recently approved a settlement between the Home Builders Association of Northern California and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a blow to environmentalists across the country, and was keenly felt on the Coastside.

"How could you possibly keep an animal alive without its habitat?" asked Jimmy Benjamin, a commissioner with the Half Moon Bay Planning Commission.

Benjamin said that preservation of red-legged frog habitats has been a key component in many planning decisions - from the proposed Devil's Slide tunnel to the Guerrero wetlands in Miramar to the Railroad Avenue area.

Benjamin thinks the settlement will cause problems on the coast.

"I absolutely predict there will be trouble," he said. "Greed and altruism don't mix well."

Last year, the home builders group sued on the grounds that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not show that the large area was essential for the frog's survival and that the economic analysis was inadequate. Under the settlement signed by a Washington D.C. judge last week, the wildlife agency will redraw the boundaries by 2005.

That is far too much time, said Michael Sherwood, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group that specializes in litigation.

Sherwood was preparing objections to the settlement when he heard the judge had signed the consent decree - 10 days before the deadline to submit comments.

"I was shocked," he said. "We had no opportunity to object."

Sherwood filed a motion with the same court on Friday to set aside approval of the settlement.

"The implications are bad for the frog if the ruling stays in place," Sherwood said. "An important layer of protection is gone."

But Hugh Vickery, spokesman for the Department of the Interior, thinks the frog will be just fine.

"The frog is still protected under the Endangered Species Act, even if the habitat is not," said Vickery.

"Some people are saying that they're getting rid of critical habitat to make way for bulldozers. That is simply not true," he said. "The frog is protected no matter where it is."

"Red-legged frog habitat that is occupied still is protected by the Endangered Species Act," agreed Paul Campos, a lawyer for the home builders group. "Fish and Wildlife fundamentally violated the law in designating vast swaths of land for the frog … it is to be limited to specific areas actually occupied by the frog."

There is a measure of protection for the amphibian under the Endangered Species Act, said Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist with the Center for Ecological Diversity in Berkeley. But he said that just looking at the land where the frog is found is not enough for it to survive.

"Critical habitat is one of the key elements for recovery of a species," he said.

The frog, written about by Mark Twain is his short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," is part of Western history and folklore, said Galvin.

"Amphibians are seen as an indicator of environmental health," Galvin said. "We see the decline of the red-legged frogs as an alarm bell. California has lost over 90 percent of its wetlands in the last 300 years … we rely on the same wetlands as the frog for water supply, filtration of pollutants and open space."

The loss of critical habitat, said Galvin, means that people must keep a particularly close eye on developers and consultants. He cited a recent case in the East Bay where a developer was charged with telling his workers to fill in ponds in an area where he planned to build 3,200 homes. In another case, an environmental consultant was placed on probation last year for removing frogs and tadpoles from a construction site in Concord.

Local environmentalist Jonathan Lundell thinks the impact of the decision will not be felt as much on the Coastside as in other parts of the state.

"So much of the Coastside is demonstrably red-legged frog habitat and if the home builders hope there will suddenly be no more red-legged frogs on the Coastside, I think they are mistaken," said Lundell, who is happy to have the frogs on his property south of Half Moon Bay.

"We know the frog exists in our habitat - it's not conjecture. In some ways it's (the decision) kind of moot because it's here," agreed Benjamin, who pointed out that the Planning Commission must carry out the Local Coastal Plan, which calls for protecting environmentally sensitive areas.

"Of course, this decision represents something of a trend," Lundell said. "I don't think the current administration is any great friend of endangered species. There's a similar reconsideration for salmon habitat."

Along with the frog and 19 species of salmon and steelhead, the pygmy owl and the Southwestern willow flycatcher have lost habitat protection in the last year.

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